Contract workers for the US State Department improperly viewed Democratic presidential candidate Sen Barack Obama's passport records three times this year in what his campaign called "an outrageous breach" of his privacy.
The State Department said its initial assessment was that three workers in separate offices looked at the records out of "imprudent curiosity" rather than any political motivation but that it had requested an investigation into the matter.
The incidents, which occurred on January 9, February 21 and March 14, were quickly reported to lower-level State Department officials but only came to the notice of its senior management when a reporter e-mailed spokesman Sean McCormack on Thursday.
Two of the three contract workers were fired as soon as the unauthorised viewing of Obama's files was discovered, while the third has been disciplined but still works for a contractor who has business with the State Department.
"At this point in time, it's our initial view that this was imprudent curiosity on the part of these three, separate individuals," McCormack told reporters in a hastily arranged conference call on Thursday night.
"This is an outrageous breach of security and privacy, even from an administration that has shown little regard for either over the last eight years," said Obama campaign spokesman Bill Burton. "Our government's duty is to protect the private information of the American people, not use it for political purposes."
"We demand to know who looked at Senator Obama's passport file, for what purpose and why it took so long for them to reveal this security breach," the Obama spokesman added.
Obama learned of the incidents on Thursday on a plane between campaign stops in West Virginia and Oregon. His staff will get a more detailed briefing on Friday from Undersecretary of State Pat Kennedy.
Word of the passport breach came as Obama, who would be America's first black president, was trying to rebound after a rocky patch. The Illinois senator delivered a major speech this week on race relations in an effort to explain his relationship with his controversial longtime Chicago pastor, the Rev Jeremiah Wright.
The latest Gallup survey showed Obama trailing rival Hillary Clinton by 49 percent to 42 percent among Democrats in the contest to select the Democratic nominee to face Republican Sen John McCain in the November 4 election.
A spokesman for Clinton, a New York senator, said of the security breach, "If it's true, it's reprehensible, and the Bush administration has a responsibility to get to the bottom of it."
A political firestorm erupted in 1992 after State Department officials searched Democratic presidential candidate Bill Clinton's passport and citizenship files. The search coincided with Republican attacks on Clinton for his role in the Vietnam anti-war movement as a student at Oxford University in 1969 and for a trip to Moscow he made at the same time.
An investigation found no laws were violated but that officials exercised poor judgment.
Speaking to reporters, US officials said they had asked the State Department's inspector general to conduct an independent investigation of how and why Obama's records were accessed and what, if anything, was done with the information.
"We are now checking to make sure exactly what information was in the files that were accessed," Kennedy told reporters, saying it would typically include passport applications.
Applicants must provide such sensitive information as a social security number, date of birth, address and telephone number as well as their parents' names and places of birth when they apply for a passport.
The officials said that when a prominent person's passport records are accessed, it triggers an alarm in the computer system and the person who viewed them is questioned to see if there was a legitimate reason for looking at the file.
Despite her lead in the latest poll, Clinton trails Obama in the state-by-state contest for delegates that began in January. The nominees are formally chosen by delegates at the parties' conventions in the summer.
Clinton had hoped to try to chip away at Obama's delegate lead with a rerun of Michigan's contested Democratic presidential primary. But a Clinton-backed "do-over" proposal effectively died in the Michigan Legislature when lawmakers adjourned on Thursday without considering the plan.
Obama opposed rerunning the Michigan primary. The Michigan and Florida Democratic primaries were invalidated because both states ignored party directives and held their balloting earlier than allowed. (Reuters)
Obama's passport records improperly accessed